Brittney Griner, the star basketball player detained in Russia over alleged drug charges, has become the latest of several Americans who have yet to secure their freedom from a country increasingly isolated from the rest of the world.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine brought forth global condemnation from governments and peoples alike, who have since boycotted Russian goods, frozen Russian access to banking systems and enacted crippling sanctions. And amid the growing economic repercussions, families and supporters of Griner and other detained Americans, like Trevor Reed and Paul Whelan, are working to free their loved ones as diplomatic channels fade.
Russian authorities said Griner, 31, had cannabis oil in her luggage while in a Moscow airport last month and accused her of smuggling significant amounts of a narcotic substance – an offense punishable by up to 10 years in prison. A Moscow court has extended her arrest until May 19, according to Russian state news agency TASS.
Reed, 30, and Whelan, 52, were arrested and convicted separately for alleged crimes they’ve emphatically denied well before the Russian incursion of Ukraine, and the pair remain in prison serving extended sentences denounced by US officials as unfair.
Here’s what we know so far about their detentions.
Griner’s whereabouts haven’t been shared by authorities
Griner, a two-time Olympic basketball gold medalist, is a star player in both the US and Russia and has been a regular centerpiece in the successes of her teams, the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury and Russian club UMMC Ekaterinburg.
Many details of her detention in Moscow remain in question, including the exact date of the arrest and her current location. US Rep. Colin Allred, whose office has been in touch with the US State Department, said Griner was arrested in Russia on February 17.
A photo, posted to social media on February 16, appears to show Griner at a hotel in New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport.
Four days later, Griner’s Russian team played in a game and she was not in the lineup.
Those close to Griner have expressed their frustration over the detention and lack of clarity provided by Russian authorities. In an Instagram post, Griner’s wife, Cherelle, described the agony of waiting.
“There are no words to express this pain. I’m hurting, we’re hurting,” she said.
Although a State Department official told CNN the US had been denied consular access to Griner, a source close to the situation told CNN that Griner’s Russian legal team has seen her several times a week throughout her detention, and she is well.
The Biden administration is working to get Griner out of Russia, members of the Congressional Black Caucus said after meeting last week with President Joe Biden.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, who represents Griner’s hometown of Houston, said she spoke of Griner during the meeting and noted there is a “need for her to be immediately released and for her to receive the help of the United States to demand and facilitate that release.”
But a US representative cautioned to CNN last week that getting her home is “going to be very difficult.”
“Our diplomatic relationships with Russia are nonexistent at the moment,” Rep. John Garamendi, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said.
Reed family spoke with President Biden
Reed, a former US Marine detained in Russia since 2019, was sentenced to nine years in prison in July 2020 for endangering the “life and health” of Russian police officers after a night of drinking, according to state-run news agency TASS.
Russian authorities claimed Reed resisted arrest and attacked officers as they responded to complaints of a disturbance, according to Russian state-run news agency RIA-Novosti.
Alina Tsybulnik, Reed’s girlfriend who was with him that night, heavily disputed police allegations, telling TASS, “(The police) constantly change their story … in my opinion, Reed was too drunk to resist them.”
Reed and his family have denied the charges and US Ambassador to Russia John Sullivan called the trial “theater of the absurd” after the 2020 sentencing.
Joey and Paula Reed, Trevor’s parents, spoke with Biden on March 8, shortly after waving at the President’s passing motorcade in Fort Worth, Texas, the family said.
An attempt to set up a meeting with Biden ahead of the visit was declined, the family said, but Biden later spoke with them via phone.
“I just can’t imagine what you’re going through,” Biden could be heard saying on the cell phone’s speaker by a CNN producer and other reporters at the scene. “I don’t want you to think that it’s not something I constantly think about.”
The Reeds grew emotional and stepped away from reporters for the remainder of the conversation with the President, but Paula Reed later shared details of the call, including that Biden told them he “thinks of Trevor every day and that he feels horrible that he hasn’t been able to bring Trevor home yet. And he said, ‘We’re not going to stop.’”
“He said he prays for our son every day and that he said a rosary, before he came to Fort Worth, for our son,” Joey Reed told CNN’s Brianna Keilar on “New Day.”
In recent calls to his parents, including Wednesday morning, Trevor Reed said he had been coughing up blood, had intermittent fevers and had pain in his chest, according to Joey Reed – and the family is concerned he has tuberculosis.
The son delivered more bad news Wednesday: He said he’d had “some sort of accident” that’s hurt his chest further, Joey Reed said.
“He called and could barely talk,” the father said. “He believes he might have broken a rib. So now as he’s coughing, he has shooting, stabbing pains in his chest.” Paula Reed added she thought her son said something had fallen on him from a shelf.
Joey Reed also said Trevor told them he would be sent to a hospital prison on Friday to be checked. Although he believed Trevor has been honest about his health, Joey Reed expressed uncertainty that his son’s injury was an accident. “It just seems to be getting worse and worse,” he said.
The parents told their son about their phone call with Biden.
“He said he was very excited for us, but he’s still cautiously optimistic,” Paula Reed said Wednesday. “I think he doesn’t want to get his hopes up too much, so for him it works better if he just kind of downplays everything.”
Family pushes for Whelan’s release
Paul Whelan, a US, Irish, British and Canadian citizen and former US Marine, was detained at a Moscow hotel in 2018 and arrested on espionage charges, which he has consistently denied. He was convicted and sentenced in June 2020 to 16 years in prison in a trial widely denounced as unfair by US officials.
In a call with CNN in June, Whelan described the grim conditions of the remote labor camp where he spends his days working in a clothing factory that he called a “sweatshop,” and said, “getting medical care here is very difficult.”
Whelan was getting through his plight “day by day,” he told CNN, and was trying to keep “a positive mental attitude” about the situation.
His family said Whelan has been the subject of retaliation, including serving time in solitary confinement where he was not permitted to shower or exercise.
Whelan’s siblings have spent the past three years staying in contact with him and advocating on his behalf to lawmakers in Washington, DC, and his sister, Elizabeth Whelan, lauded American officials in Moscow for their work. But the latest strain in relations between the two nations is likely to complicate efforts.
“An unfortunate component about advocating for someone who is wrongfully detained is you have to make your presence known. There’s always a crisis going on, and you have to keep reminding people that there is an American who is being held by a hostile foreign nation, often one that we have relations with of some sort, and that this situation has to end,” Elizabeth Whelan told CNN in December.
She praised her brother’s perseverance, adding that he “is bound and determined to survive this situation, and he is not going to give in to the Russians. He is not going to show weakness.”
CNN’s Paul P. Murphy, Holly Yan, Lucy Kafanov, Rosa Flores, Wayne Sterling, Chris Boyette, Maegan Vazquez, Ashley Killough, Ed Lavandera, Raja Razek, Chandelis Duster, Jason Hanna and Jennifer Hansler contributed to this report.